It wasn’t the memory that woke me. I have a nasty habit of constantly waking up with one hand under my pillow, grasping the hilt of my hatchet like the lifeline it is, coated in sweat and feeling as tense as a wire.
It was the smell of smoke from the burning bed next to me. The one my sister was currently screaming in.
I shot out of the bed like a bullet from a gun, getting as far away from the white flames as I could. Despite the horrible screams she was making, I knew Dro wasn’t being hurt. At least, that was what she always told me.
Our bags were by the motel door, ready as usual. I only had the clothes on my back, so I didn’t have to change. I grabbed my knives from the table, holstering them on either side of my ribs, and then threw my black military jacket– my lucky jacket– over my shoulders. I hooked my hatchet to my belt, shoved on my boots, and glanced at the bed where Dro was still screaming.
The fire had moved from the bed to the walls, to the curtains, and then to the ceiling. The cheap, peeling wallpaper blackened and rained down around her, like black snow in a whiteout.
Dro suddenly stopped screaming. The nightmare was over. She realized what was happening around her, and that it was time to leave. I was already waiting by the door with her bag and mine in hand. She jumped off her burning bed, completely unharmed by the fire. It had sloughed off her like a second skin.
It never got easier seeing her burning like that again, but when you’re about to be smothered in what literally feels like ten thousand degrees, there are only two things that should cross your mind: Get out, and get out now.
Dro threw on her jacket and boots while I yanked open the door and took off down the hall. She would be right behind me. She always was. She knew the drill.
The rest of the motel residents were screaming and shouting for help into cell phones as the fire moved from room to room. I swerved around them as much as I could, but some I had to shove out of the way. Not very nice of me, but they didn’t know what caused the fire. I did. Getting caught wasn’t an option.
At the bottom of the second story, I could see the motel owner. He was roaring in outrage and panic. He was probably going to blame us for what happened to his place once the hysteria was over, seeing as we’d shown up covered in dirt and blood, demanding a room with no questions asked. Not that I was going to admit the fire had started in our room. It wasn’t like we planned it.
We raced across the street, the motel now practically glowing with brightly burning red flames now that Dro’s power had shut down. It would only last as long as she was conscious and in control of it, which happened about five times out of ten. There was no safe way to predict when Dro would be in control, and when she would simply lose herself.
It would take firefighters hours to put out the blaze, and even longer to figure out the cause. Not that they’d come to the proper conclusion, because cases of teenage girls spontaneously combusting weren’t normal.
But on the other hand, my sister had never been normal.
Even if they had a psychic on hand to see the truth and make them believe it, it wouldn’t matter. We would be long gone by then.
I ducked into a narrow alley behind a cheap, “genuine” Southern-style diner. It smelled like grease and stale French fries, but it was better than smelling something burning. Or sulfur.
I pressed my back to the wall, steadying my racing heart. I looked up at my sister, who was almost ready to cry. Her breath came in shuddering gasps, her arms wrapped around her pale body.
A dull sadness pulled at my heartstrings. I hated seeing Dro this way. She was blaming herself for what happened. A thing she hadn’t been able to control, that she had been born with.
“Are you okay, Dro?” I said in a rush.
She was looking down, gripping her elbows tightly and bent over like a hunchback instead of a sixteen year old girl.
As sisters went, Dro and I couldn’t look less alike. She was still a growing young woman, but she was becoming increasingly beautiful with each passing day. She was taller now and her perfect skin, once chubby from childhood, had stretched over her bones and turned into supple, womanly curves. Her hair continued to grow long in shining, white ripples down her back that for some reason wouldn’t hold any hair dye we tried to use. Her lips were full and perfectly shaped, her cheekbones high and noble on her heart shaped face. Her eyes continued to glow an icy blue, piercing and striking against her snowy, angelic appearance.
I was taller than Dro, my skin a brownish gold. I was more of the athletic body type, my curves smaller and not worthy of a sculpture the way Dro’s were. My black hair had been cut close to just under my chin because I hated when it got in my way during fights. My lips were thinner and my face longer. My eyes were the same chocolate color our father’s had been. What I lacked in beauty, I made up in strength. My muscles were refined and powerful, my stomach and legs taut.
Comparing Dro and me was like comparing snow and dirt. She told me I was beautiful, but I knew Dro said it only because she thought the best of me.
“It’s my fault,” she whispered, not meeting my eyes. “I burned it down. Someone’s probably dead by now.”
I moved from the wall and placed my hands on hers. “Look at me, little sister.” She did, familiar tears streaking her face. “You didn’t mean to do it.”
She hadn’t. Dro was the type of girl who wouldn’t hurt a fly, even if that fly was buzzing half an inch from her face and trying to get into her eye. Dro helped people. She cared about them. She never hurt them on purpose.
Not like I did.
I wish I knew what to tell her so she would believe me. I didn’t want to think of myself as a bad sister. A bad person, yeah. I had made some nasty enemies over the last few years, and I’d never been able to see eye to eye with the law. But I put Dro before anything and anyone else. She was the only person who mattered to me, the only person I would do anything for. She was the one who kept my head on a swivel when I thought I was going to lose it. And I was the reason she hadn’t lost all hope and given in to whatever was chasing us.
We still didn’t know what they were. Six years living under the radar, four of which were spent working for one of the most ruthless, vicious drug cartels of Mexico, hadn’t exactly afforded me a lot of time to brush up on my monster knowledge.
Though it did teach me how to fight, how to avoid the cops, and how to inflict severe pain on my enemies. Whether they were human, or something else.
I glanced down the alley, making sure nothing was watching us, then glanced at my sister.
“What did you dream?” I asked.
She winced, but she wasn’t crying anymore. “The usual. Monsters torturing me, burning everything I touch, ripping people apart with my bare hands.”
Her voice started to shake again. She was ready to have another break down. While I would have let her cry it out, this wasn’t the place or the time.
“Come on,” I said. “We should get out of here.”
I started turning out of the alley when the smell hit me. Rotten eggs. The scent of monsters.
The air ripped open like a wound, shuddering and pulling apart to reveal the red, flaming misery of another world. I couldn’t tell for sure, but my guess was that I was looking into Hell. It was the only place I’d heard of that was always on fire.
Out of the tear came a skinny red monster. A Red, I called them. It was about six feet tall with a scrawny humanoid shape, but sexless with poreless, blood red flesh and vicious black claws on its hands and feet. Its thin, oily hair hung in wet strands around its head and in front of its ugly pointed ears. Its eyes were almond-shaped and pitch black, its lips peeled back in a savage snarl that revealed a row of serrated teeth. It sniffed the air through its slitted nose, then charged at me.
Reds were fast. Very fast. But so was I.
As soon as I saw the world open, I threw off my backpack and started reaching for one of the slim, throwing knives in my jacket. There was no point in running from the monster. Not when I knew I could kill it.
I ducked down as it swiped its claws at me, stabbing my knife into its stomach. The monster growled but didn’t act like it was really affected by the wound. I stabbed it again and again as quickly as I could, hoping to damage it before it could get a shot in at me, or get to Dro.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw it swing at me with its other hand. I pulled back and twisted out of range, the claws skidding along the back of my jacket. I dropped to the ground and kicked its legs out from under it, but the Red tucked and rolled instead of staying down.
I was trying to push up from my crouch when it pounced on me.
My back slammed against the ground, my head cracking on the pavement. I winced and stabbed the monster in the ribs over and over, until it dug its claws into my shoulders. I let out a cry of pain as the nasty talons punched into my flesh. The Red used the claws hooked in me to lift me up and slam my head back into the pavement. Then again. And again. And one more time just to make sure I would be bleeding.
The world spun around me, but I still tried to fight. The monster opened its jaws, rearing its head back to strike.
It froze when a sharp knife was shoved into the back of its throat. Dro stood behind the Red, twisting the blade with a disgusted look on her face as the monster bled thick, black blood. That sort of strike would have killed a human. But this thing was obviously not human, and my little sister had just made it angry.
The Red got off of me and raced for her, but I shot to my feet. I nearly collapsed from the wave of vertigo, but I would think about my possible concussion later. The monster had Dro pressed up against a wall. She had nowhere to run.
I clenched my fist around my knife and rammed it into the Red’s back, making it stiffen in pain. I kept stabbing as it whirled, throwing out its hand. I narrowly leaned away from the slap, but drove myself forward again and shoved my knife into its heart. I stabbed as fast as I could, twisting the knife until it finally went down.
By the time I delivered the last stab, my arm was almost numb. It throbbed with pain and was soaked in hot, sticky blood. Monster blood burned, but I had too much adrenaline coursing through me to really care.
Then the monster began to dissolve.
The chest caved inward, the way it does when someone stomps down on it. The skin turned black and crusty, breaking off like broken glass. Then it evaporated and blew away, like it had never existed at all.
There wouldn’t be any evidence, but that still didn’t tell me what the hell had just happened. I didn’t know of any monsters that turned into ash when they died. But at least I knew it was dead, and that was the only thing that really mattered to me.
I stood up and straightened my back, beginning to feel the full extent of my injuries. My head was swimming, the hairs at the back of my neck felt sticky, my shoulders were throbbing with pain from being clawed, and the demon blood was continuing to burn me.
Still, I’d had worse. Not that I counted this little encounter as a positive thing.
“You’re bleeding,” Dro said in a quiet voice across from me.
I looked at her, slowly sheathing my knife, trying to act like that simple movement wasn’t pure agony to my shoulders.
“I’ll be all right,” I rasped out, my breathing still heavy from the fight.
She took a tentative step closer to me. “I’m sorry, Constance. I was trying to get there sooner, but–”“You know the rules,” I told her. “Leave the fighting to me.”
Dro was tougher than she looked. She had to be, given the way we lived. But deep down she was just too gentle, never wanting to hurt anyone or anything. She wasn’t comfortable with a weapon in her fist or blood on her hands.
Not like I was.
Dro frowned and looked at my injuries again, taking another step toward me. She didn’t hesitate, reaching out and pulling away the collar of my shirt to see the wicked wounds on my skin. Her frown deepened and she gently touched the broken skin on my shoulder. Her hands began to glow a strange golden light, and she began to heal me.
There were many words a person could use to describe Dro. Special. Gifted. Strange. All of them were true, because she wasn’t human. I wanted to pretend she was, but it was impossible to do when she healed my injuries with a single touch. Or when she told me she could read other people’s thoughts if she concentrated enough. Or when she heard, smelled, or saw things way before I did. Or when she had the nightmares and burst into flame.
None of it changed my love for her, but it did scare me. More than I wanted to admit.
I winced as her magic worked on my damaged flesh. It didn’t exactly hurt, but it was uncomfortable. Like taking a dip in icy cold water and then immediately splashing into a hot bath. The pins and needles feeling sent a shock to my nerves and my brain saying something was wrong.
No shit, brain. Thanks for reminding me.
But doing this meant I could fight again, and Dro could feel like she had helped me when she hadn’t been strong enough to kill the monster herself.
She moved onto the back of my head and I couldn’t help but stiffen. It just felt so wrong.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“It’s okay,” I told her, forcing my shoulders to drop and relax. “It just feels weird.”
Soon enough, Dro had finished healing my wounds. Aside from the dirt and bloodstains on my clothes, it was impossible to tell I’d had been in a fight. Even though she only had a few minor scratches, I made her heal herself. I’d been overly protective even when we were kids, and it had only gotten worse as we got older and our lives spiraled out of control. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Dro. Nothing I wouldn’t steal, no law I wouldn’t break, no monster or man I wouldn’t kill.
I would burn the world to a cinder to save Dro.
After she healed and I’d concealed as much of the blood as I could, I rearranged the bag on my back and started walking out of the alley with my strange little sister behind me. The town was small and while the fire crews were on their way, it would take the sheriffs a few more minutes to get here.
More than enough time for me to steal a car and find somewhere else for us to run. When Dro had a nightmare, it meant monsters were close. I didn’t want to get into another fight if I could avoid it, even if they weren’t the things I feared the most.
The monsters scared me. The cartel and the federal Marshals hunting us scared me.
But Dro scared me more.
We drove to Amarillo, which was only a fraction bigger than the last town we had been in. Amarillo was a sleepy place with some paranormal hunting groups, which was why Dro had suggested going there.
We spent the first day doing research. Dro went to the library and was checking out books while I waited in the car. I’d been ready to go in with her, but I was a wanted criminal. I couldn’t exactly go into a public building and hope I wouldn’t be recognized.
While I was waiting, I used the electronic tablet that had been in the car I’d stolen to read up on the Wanted lists on the U.S. Marshal website. A sketch of my angry face and a list of all my crimes were still posted there.
Aggravated assault. Drug trafficking. Breaking and entering. Assault with a deadly weapon. Aiding and abetting. Kidnapping. Possession of firearms. Theft of varying degrees. Arson. Manslaughter. First and second degree murder. Underneath the ever growing list was a note for a hefty reward of twenty-five thousand dollars for my capture.
I checked news sites to see what my old bosses, the Espanis de Sangre– the Blood Thorns– were up to. A shoot out with honest cops that left four officers dead, stripped of their skin with their badges nailed into their hearts. A bus full of children who were kidnapped, the boys forced to shoot their teachers and join the Thorns while the girls were raped and taken as sex slaves. The severed, veiled head of a rival gang leader’s newly wedded daughter on a bed of roses on his front porch.
So they’re having their typical Monday, I thought bitterly.
Remembering the things I had done for them brought up bad, unwanted memories. I had never crossed the line into murdering children or brides, but I hadn’t skipped out on a role as a torturer either. I had more than my share of blood on my hands, innocent and not.
I got out of my self-loathing, focusing on monsters and mythology instead. I did a couple of image searches of the Red monster, but all I saw were pictures of a stereotypical red, horned devil. Nothing specific enough.
After about half an hour, I gave up on the monster search and starting looking for a description of a creature with the same powers that Dro had. I came up with nothing. Whatever she was, she might be the only one of her kind.
I’d known she wasn’t normal when I found her...
I had been four years old, and our family had been relaxing for the weekend at Owl Creek Park, a few miles northwest of Temple Texas. I had wandered from the campsite and heard a baby crying in the forest. I’d followed the noise, and found a pale baby screaming and crying in a patch of earth that smelled like rotten eggs.
Since I hadn’t been able to stand the heart-wrenching, tortured cries she’d been making, I had wrapped her up in my coat and soothed her as best as a four year old could, rocking her back and forth and even singing to her. She stopped crying, then opened up her big blue eyes and stared at me. Her pale, chubby hand reached up and batted against my chin.
That was something I still liked to tease her about; that the first thing she did when I took her in was cry and punch me.
I had always wanted a sister. I’d overheard my parents talk of wishing they could have another kid, but Mom couldn’t get pregnant again for some reason. So I had walked back to the camp and found them, holding a naked, pale baby in my jacket, and smiled like the lunatic I was.
“Mom, Dad, look! You can have a baby now! I can have a sister!”
My parents had wanted to give her back to her family, and not just for the obvious reasons. We were poor. Really poor. The rusted, hundred dollar camper and a trip to the RV Park was the most Dad could afford for a vacation. He had been a construction worker and Mom had worked two jobs. They worked at places that didn’t care about immigration status, or lack thereof, and stayed wary of cops.
We had come across the border when I was two, since Dad wanted to escape his employment as a drug runner in Mexico. If the cops had found out, they would have sent us back across the border, and we would have been worse off.
Bringing them Dro had been another burden they hadn’t needed. I was a handful as a kid, always causing trouble, but I couldn’t leave her there. Even as a four year old, I knew right from wrong. It was wrong to leave a crying baby out in the middle of the forest to starve or be eaten by wolves.
It took almost endless convincing and a minor tantrum, but when no one showed up to reclaim Dro, we decided to adopt her. Dad wouldn’t risk giving a baby up for adoption in case the authorities got wind of us being illegals. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before they loved her as much as I did.
I suggested the name Andromeda because I saw it in a book about constellations, something my teacher taught us in the first grade, which my parents managed to slip me into a year early. Andromeda was a Greek Princess who had been chained to a rock for a sea monster to eat because her mother, Queen Cassiopeia, had been mouthing off about Andromeda being more beautiful Poseidon’s water nymphs. The hero Perseus saved her, killed the sea monster, and together they lived happily ever after. I figured at least the first half of that story matched Dro’s appearance in the woods, and my parents had liked the ring of the name.
We always knew she was different, but we never knew how much until the weird things started happening. Like her knowing things about the neighbors. Healing my cuts and bruises with a single touch. Sensing things way before I could.
The horrible nightmares, which only got worse as she got older...
A gentle rap on the car window startled me and made me jump about a foot in the air. Dro was standing outside of the car, an awkward grin on her face. She walked around the car and got into the passenger’s seat next to me.
“You looked really intense just now,” Dro said, closing the car door. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “You just scared the crap out of me.”
She grinned. “I was trying to get your attention. Guess it worked.” Her grin faded a little. “You look tired. Do you want to get something to eat?”
I tilted my head at her. “Not sure that’s a good idea, little sister. We’re fugitives, remember?”
“Come on, when was the last time we had a good breakfast?” She was smiling at me. “I know you want an omelet and bacon.”
My stomach rumbled at the thought of food. We ate whatever we could whenever we could, but Dro was right. It had been a very long time since we’d eaten outside of a motel room or a stolen car.
“Come on, Connie,” Dro said, sensing my hesitation. “One quick breakfast at a cheap, greasy diner. We can pretend to be normal for once.”
Those were the magic words: We can pretend to be normal for once.
My stomach grumbled again. It had been almost a year since I’d filled it with bacon.
“All right. But we follow the rules.”
Dro nodded, white hair bouncing against her shoulders. “Nothing over fifteen dollars and we make sure the restaurant is empty.”
I nodded back at her, tossing the tablet into the back of the car. “Okay. Let’s start pretending.”
Dro had picked out a mom-and-pop diner as soon as she’d left the library. The poor girl had been starving. I pulled the door open and walked ahead of her, bells tinkling over my head.
To normal people, it looked like a cheap, fifties diner with red and white tile on the floor, faded red booths and chipped tables. Light shone through the wide, greasy paned windows, illuminating the poorly printed signs boasting the “Best Breakfast in all of Texas!” A cool grey counter top with plastic bar stools was set up across from the booths. Behind it was a silver walled kitchen I couldn’t see into very well. There were two doors, the one we had walked into, and another at the other end of the diner.
I didn’t like this place at all.
It looked harmless enough, but all I was seeing was a place with only two visible exits and too many windows. I couldn’t see what the people in the kitchen were doing. They could call the cops or the Blood Thorns and I wouldn’t have a clue.
And if Dro sensed something wrong about them...
“Con?” she said from beside me.
I turned my head slightly so she would know I heard her. “Yeah?”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“Of course,” I told her, shifting the bag on my back.
The kitchen door opened with a bang so loud I reached for the hatchet on my hip. I pressed myself closer to Dro, ready to throw her behind me.
Not that the woman who came out of the kitchen looked like a threat. She looked more like Dolly Parton, all curly blonde hair, big eyes, and peppy attitude.
“Mornin’ ladies!” she said in a chirpy Texan drawl. She smiled so wide the cherry red lipstick she wore turned into two curved slashes on her face.
I won’t say I hated her, but I damn sure didn’t like her.
My sister moved in front of me this time. She was a lot better around people than I was. She was friendly and didn’t constantly look like she was about to break something.
“Good morning,” Dro said politely. “We’d like to get some breakfast, please.”
“Sure thing, sugar! Take seat anywhere you like.” Dolly’s eyes shifted over Dro’s shoulder to me, some of her smile fading. “Your friend okay? She looks a little upset.”
I crossed my arms and held back from laughing rudely. Dro smiled for me. “She’s fine. She’s just not a morning person.”
This time I did laugh, shortly and icily. Dolly looked at me with hesitance, but Dro took over again.
“We’ll take one of the booths.”
“Sure thing, darlin’. Menus are on the tables. I’ll get you back in a second.”
Dolly turned on her heel and clacked her way back into the kitchen. I watched her, trying to see who else was beyond the swinging door. I wanted to know who Dolly was talking to and what she was saying about me. If there was someone back there I needed to be worried about. If–
Dro tugged at my elbow. “Con? Where do you want to sit?”
I looked around the diner again. There was no decent place. No corner I could sit in and watch all the exits. I looked at the booth on my left. It was the closest I was going to get to a corner.
“Here’s good,” I said, shrugging off my backpack and tossing it onto the seat. I sat down and moved into the corner by the window. Dro sat across from me. I unzipped my jacket so I could go for my hatchet or a knife easily if I had to.
Dro slid a gaudy, plastic menu with enormous type in front of me before picking up her own and looking at it eagerly. I glanced at the menu, but barely registered what I was reading. I kept flicking my eyes up toward the kitchen whenever I saw the hint of movement. A barrel-chested man in a white apron came into view. His face looked a little chubby, but he was big. Ghosts of tattoos covered the part of his arms I could see. He might have been holding a knife. I couldn’t tell for sure, but he didn’t seem to be looking at me.
The kitchen door banged open again and Dolly came back with a pot of coffee. I stayed tense and watched her out of the corner of my eye. Normal, normal, pretend to be normal...
“This should perk you right up, darlin’,” said Dolly as she poured some steaming black coffee into the mug near my wrist. I pulled my hand back and let her do it.
“Are you girls ready to order?” Dolly asked, purposefully looking at Dro and avoiding me.
“Yes, can I please get the chocolate chip pancakes and the mixed berry salad with a glass of orange juice?” Dro asked.
“Of course, sweetheart,” Dolly replied, jotting it down on her notepad. She looked at me with her big brown eyes. “And what can I get you?”
“Ham and cheese omelet with a side of bacon and potatoes,” I said, tossing the menu down the table and taking the mug of coffee. I glanced inside the cup. It smelled normal, not poisoned. I took a careful sip. It was scorching hot and a little bland, but it didn’t taste like acid.
“That’s a lot of food for one girl,” Dolly said, trying to be nice to me again.
I gave her a dark look. “I have a good metabolism.”
I didn’t add that I burned calories by fighting monsters and running for my life. My diet secret was for me to know and Dolly to envy. She looked at Dro again, clearly liking her more. Everybody did, and that was fine with me.
“I’ll be right back with your order,” Dolly said before scurrying off to the kitchen.
Dro looked across the table at me impatiently. “I thought we were trying to be normal,” she said.
“That is my normal,” I said, taking another sip of coffee.
“Normal people are a bit more polite.”
I just blinked at my little sister. She sighed and shook her head. Dro loved me and I loved her, but when it came to social skills, we were in a never-ending war.
“Did you find anything out?” she asked me after a moment.
“Nope,” I said, thinking back on my research in the car. “Just a bunch of sites saying that the Reds are demons. You?”
Dro shook her head, leaning back in the seat. “Not really. Most of what I came across suggested demons, too.” She looked at me. “Do you think that’s what they are?”
I shrugged. “Wish I knew, Dro. I’m not sure there’s anyone we could ask, either.”
“There must be someone here. A demonologist or paranormal investigator we can ask.”
“Assuming they know what the hell they were talking out. We can’t waste time looking through all the fakes and hoping we find the real deal.”
Bells tinkled harmlessly behind me. I turned sharply in my seat. Two parents with a young boy and younger girl walked in. The kids were tired and restless. The parents were trying to contain them. Dolly came back out of the banging kitchen door to greet them. I was ready to rip the fucking thing off its hinges. Dolly led them past us to another booth. The little girl caught sight of Dro and stared with wonder. Dro smiled and waved at her. The girl giggled.
The kid was harmless, just reacting the way everyone reacted around Dro, but it was unwanted attention. Having a beautiful, pale sister with snow-white hair and ice blue eyes made it difficult to stay under the radar.
When the family was seated three booths down, Dro looked at me again. “What if we went to a priest?” I took my eyes away from the family and looked at my sister. “They’d know for sure if we were being chased by demons, and they would know how to prevent them from coming after us, or at least tell us what they could want.”
“We prevent them by killing them, little sister. And I’m not sure we’d like knowing what they want.”
Dro narrowed her eyes. “It doesn’t matter if we don’t want to know. We have to find out. I’m not going to die not knowing what I am or why I’m being hunted.”
I matched her sharp gaze, nerves forgotten. “Don’t say stuff like that. You’re not going to die. I’m going to keep you safe, just like I always have.”
She sighed. “This is so much bigger than us, Con. I can feel it. I’m not asking you to believe everything you hear, but we aren’t going to get anywhere if we skip obvious options.”
The kitchen door banged open again, Dolly coming towards us with huge plates of food. Dro’s eyes lit up, but I looked past them to the cook, the way he was chopping down with his knife. I’d seen similar motions when I was with the Blood Thorns. A blade slicing into flesh and removing it from the bone, blood gushing out like a fountain, a tortured man screaming for mercy–
I tensed again, nearly jumping when Dolly placed the plate of food in front of me. I glanced up at her, not hearing what she was saying because I was still shaking free of my memories. Dro said something nice to get her away from our table. A small smile played across my sister’s lips as she looked at the mountain of chocolate chip pancakes and berries in front of her. She picked up her fork and knife, cutting into her food.
I looked down at mine. The omelet was cooked pretty well, brown singed egg folded over and over with greasy ham and cheese seeping out of it. The potatoes were crispy and dark. The bacon was perfectly cooked and smelled like heaven. I grabbed my utensils and started eating.
Maybe it wasn’t the best diner in Texas. I hadn’t been to enough restaurants to compare. But to me, this was five star cuisine. It tasted homemade, reminding me of the Sunday breakfasts Mom used to make when she wasn’t working. I looked up at my little sister. She was in bliss, the small smile that I loved on her face as she devoured chocolate chip pancakes.
For a minute, we had the normality Dro wanted. We didn’t have to say anything. We could just sit there with each other and let everything else fade away.
But then the kids started arguing and I was snapped out of my trance. I kept eating, but my eyes focused over Dro’s head as the mother of the family was saying something to her kids with a sharp tongue. I couldn’t hear what they were arguing about, but the little girl was trying to get out of the booth. What was she trying to run from? Was she just being stubborn, or was there something wrong that she was seeing and I was missing?
My eyes ran over the diner again, my body stiffening and my pulse starting to quicken. I’d lost sight of the cook. Was he in the back of the kitchen? Had he looked at me and recognized me? Was he calling the cops? I’d made Dolly nervous. She must have said something to him by now.
I focused on my food, forcing it into my mouth and chewing more than tasting. The far door of the diner kept opening and closing, filling up with the morning seniors and hungry regulars. I kept my head down, but we were going to have to leave soon. Dro noticed this too, taking a break from her pancakes to eat some of the berry salad.
The doorbells tinkled behind me again. I twisted in my seat, hands loose and ready to go for a weapon. Two large men walked in. One was wearing a plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves and dirty denim jeans while the other one wore a black Creedence Clearwater Revival shirt and light blue jeans. I saw them both look at Dro, staring at her with wonder and amazement. Creedence whispered something I couldn’t hear to Plaid, and I felt the tension build in my muscles yet again.
What were they saying? Did they think they could try something? Would they listen if I told them to stop looking at Dro and fuck off? How fast would I have to move to stop them? Could I reach a knife in time if they left me no choice?
They took their eyes away from Dro and beamed when Dolly’s chipper voice called them over. I watched them sit at the long booth across from us. Only Creedence looked back at Dro.
“Do you want to leave?”
I looked across the booth at my sister. She’d eaten about half her food, but stopped when she saw how uncomfortable I was. I looked down from her concerned blue eyes and poked some of the potatoes with my fork.
“No, it’s okay,” I said. “Just wish it were the two of us.”
Dro was looking at me with a frown on her face, but I pretended I was all right. That I didn’t hate places where I couldn’t see everything. That I didn’t like the cook. That I didn’t have a minor anxiety attack when the doors slammed open and someone I didn’t know walked inside a place I was unfamiliar with.
Pretend you’re normal, Constance. Give Dro her wish.
Maybe I could have kept faking for another five minutes, if Creedence and Plaid didn’t have such loud voices and a habit for gossip.
“Did you hear about the bodies they found in El Paso? Can’t imagine what kind of animal could tear up a body like that. Sammy was saying the body was shredded like red confetti.”
Dolly was laughing loudly with some of the seniors. The regulars were talking over them. The kids started screaming at each other. The parents raised their voices to calm down. The cook slammed things around in the kitchen.
“What about that execution a couple days ago? Guy had his intestines torn out and wrapped around a damn bouquet of red roses.”
My heart started racing. The Blood Thorns were two days away from us. The monsters were even closer. They were on our trail. The monsters could sense Dro, and the Blood Thorns would know how to track me. We were going to be found unless I did something. Unless I moved us out of the town and headed somewhere safe.
But nowhere was safe. I might know how to run from the Blood Thorns, but the monsters? I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know how to keep Dro safe from them. I didn’t even know what she was and why they wanted her so badly.
I hadn’t even known I was shaking until Dro reached across the table and placed her hand on mine. I looked up and inhaled, the havoc of the world starting to dissolve around me. Dro tried to smile, but the concern in her ice blue eyes was easy to see. She squeezed my hand.
“I don’t know about you, but I can’t eat another bite. What do you say we get this all to go? I’m sure it’ll last for a couple days, and I know how fanatical you are about leftovers.”
I let out a laugh, though it sounded forced. Dro smiled, gave my hand one more squeeze, then signaled Dolly for the check and to-go boxes. I reached into my pocket and pulled some crumpled bills from our reserve cash. As I tossed the money on the table, I glanced at my sister and thought about what she’d said about trying to talk to a priest.
Deep down, she knew I was going to give in. Dro didn’t ask for much, and whenever she did, it was for a good reason. I preferred to be blissfully ignorant. It was easier than knowing the truth. But I would deal with the truth for Dro’s sake. Partly because I knew she was right, but mostly because she had asked me.
Dolly walked over, handing us the boxes.
“Where’s the nearest church?” I asked out of the blue.
The middle-aged blonde waitress looked at me like I was from the moon. “Church?”
“Yeah, the place you go to pray and stuff. Where is one?”
Dolly hesitated, then said, “You can go to Father Colin at the Church of the Redeemer, up the street and two blocks to the left. He should be there now.”
I gave her a nod and started dumping the food into the Styrofoam cartons. I was moving quickly while Dro was charming the waitress. I just wanted to get out of here before I had another minor panic attack. As soon as we slipped out of the booth, I headed for the door and stood next to it, glancing around the diner to see if anyone was going to try anything while our backs were turned.
Dolly was talking to the cook. Creedence and Plaid were gossiping, Creedence taking the occasional look to Dro. The seniors and regulars hadn’t even noticed us. The family was calming their children down. The little girl turned in her seat and waved at Dro. My sister waved back, then left the diner. I followed behind her, catching up to her side.
“So Father Colin at the Church of the Redeemer, huh?” said Dro.
I shrugged. “Guess so.”
A faint smile passed my sister’s lips. “Thanks, Connie.”
I stifled a laugh. “Don’t thank me yet. We haven’t even met the Padre yet.”
“I was saying thanks for breakfast.”
I glanced at her uncertainly. “The food was good, but it wasn’t what I would call ideal. Or normal.”
“Maybe, but for a moment it was.” Her smile softened. “Besides, it seemed like us.”
She was right. But I wasn’t sure if that was a happy thought or a depressing one.
I’m a skeptic. Given all the paranormal and outright insane things I had seen and endured, I shouldn’t have been, but it was a habit I just couldn’t break. I needed facts and proof. I couldn’t just blindly accept something because it was dressed up with pretty words and magic.
So I don’t like churches. I don’t like religion. I don’t believe in God. They were going to kick me out as soon as they got a look at my dirty jeans, roughed up military jacket, and unwashed hair. And that would be before they realized I was carrying four throwing knives in my jacket and a hatchet on my hip.
It was mid-morning as we made our way up the steps to the Church of the Redeemer. Dro stared up at the tall white steeple at its top while I was thinking about what I could do in Amarillo for money. Maybe we’d be able to get some quick work in and make a little more cash or get us another decent Southern meal. All I had reserved now was eighty-five dollars, and that wouldn’t be enough to get us to... wherever the hell our final destination was.
Dro pushed open the doors to the church and walked inside with me right behind her. The church was what you might call ‘modern gothic.’ The nave was wide with dozens of long, well polished pews, the curving roof over my head seemed to actually stretch up to Heaven. The stained glass windows glistened with rainbows of light. At the end of the nave was the lectern, with a tall pulpit and a gleaming brass organ behind it. I guess it was a nice church, but I also thought it was a little pretentious.
Dro dipped her pale fingers into the bowl of holy water near the door and crossed herself, saying one Hail Mary. I dipped my fingers in the bowl too, but only because my fingers were dirty and I needed something to clean them with.
God wasn’t going to forgive me for the things I had done. One more misdeed couldn’t damn my soul any further.
“Hello?” Dro called to the empty church, her elegant voice echoing against the walls. “Father Colin? Are you here?”
Out of one of the doors on the far right corner came a man in a black priest cassock. He was older, maybe his late fifties, his skin tanned from being in the sun on his off days. In addition to the crisp, white collar around his throat, he wore a long silver rosary that rested against his slightly chubby middle. He greeted us with a warm smile and kind blue eyes.
“Welcome, children,” he drawled. “It’s always good to see young folk coming to pray in the name of our Lord.”
I almost laughed at him. He just sounded so damn corny. I coughed instead, Dro shooting me a look over her shoulder to keep me from saying anything rude for the moment. She turned back to the priest and smiled.
“We’re looking for Father Colin. A waitress at the Blue Sky Diner said we could find him here.”
He grinned. “You’ve found him.”
She sighed. “That’s great. We could use some help.”
“Come for confession, child? I’m glad you wish to cleanse yourself of any impure thoughts, to absolve yourself of any sins and redeem yourself in the eyes of the all gracious God.”
I didn’t like the way Father Colin was looking at her, his eyes quickly running up and down her body. If anything, he was the one who needed to confess something.
Dro probably noticed his wandering eye, but she didn’t say anything. “Not exactly, Father,” she admitted. “We have some questions.”
He smiled. “Of course. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Dro hesitated. “What can you tell us about... demons?”
His smiled vanished. “We don’t speak of demons in the house of the Lord, child. Not unless we’re speaking of cleansing them.”
“I understand that but, I... I can sense things about people. I have nightmares where I do terrible things.” She hesitated again. “I’m wondering if I might be possessed.”
I looked at the back of Dro’s snow-white head. I was glad she hadn’t said that she could supernaturally heal anyone’s wounds and spontaneously combust into fire hot enough to melt metal in two minutes flat, but some subtlety would have been nice.
“Then we’d better test you and see,” Father Colin said, blue eyes no longer friendly. “Follow me.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
The priest looked at me. “To the back of the church. I need some privacy.”
“No,” I said. “Whatever you have to do, you can do it out here, and in front of me.”
“Con,” Dro started.
I cut her off with a single look. “I’m not going anywhere. And you’re not possessed.”
“No ‘buts.’ ”
“The girl wants to be tested, then she has the right to be tested,” said the priest.
I gave him a look so cold he flinched. He was probably thinking I was the monster. He wasn’t totally wrong. Father Colin quickly looked at Dro again, taking in how strange she was. She probably didn’t look like anyone he’d ever seen before. There weren’t many pale girls with snow-colored hair in Texas, and if there were, none of them looked quite like my little sister.
As soon as he realized I wasn’t going to leave, he turned and walked to the stage beyond the pulpit. Dro and I sat on the bench in front of the organ as he took out a Bible, holy water, and Eucharist crackers. Dro sat nervously with her hands on her lap, while I leaned back against the organ and tucked my hands under my armpits, ready to go for a weapon if the priest did something unsanctified.
Threatening a man of God was low and I didn’t want to do it, but Dro’s safety came first.
Father Colin dripped some holy water onto the top of her head, then gave her a Eucharist to eat. When nothing happened, he showed her the cross on his rosary and spoke some lines from the Bible. Still nothing. He frowned, then closed the book, held it to his chest, and looked deep into her eyes.
“Do you speak with the Devil?” he asked.
Dro shook her head.
“Do you go into obscene fits and rages?”
She shook her head again.
“Do you speak unusual languages?”
Another shake of her head.
“You claim to sense things about other people. What kind of things?”
She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped, looking at me. I shrugged. This had been her idea and I wasn’t going to talk her out of it, because I didn’t have any better ideas myself. But I gave her a steady look that let her know I was here for her, and would keep her safe. Dro looked at Father Colin again.
Her eyes narrowed in concentration. The priest stared at her without emotion, ready to dismiss anything she said.
Then she spoke.
“You... You keep some of the money from the collection bowls for yourself. You’re jealous that Mr. Harrison has a BMW. You lust after Jebediah’s youngest daughter,” she said quietly, as if these were her sins to confess and not his. “You asked her to come to the church to see you alone, and when she didn’t feel the same way you did, you got angry and–”
I’d been watching the priest’s face the whole time Dro had been pulling out his dirty laundry. He went through a whirlwind of emotions. First, there was shock. Then horror. Then anger. And finally, fear.
“How do you know this?” he interrupted in a panicky breath.
“I don’t know,” Dro said desperately. “Please, I’m trying to find out, I–”
“Only a spy or worshipper of the Devil would create such lies!”
Father Colin’s shout bounced off the walls of the church, making it sound even louder. Dro jumped and I straightened, getting in front of him and reaching for the hatchet at my hip.
“That’s a pretty harsh assumption, Padre,” I said, warning in my voice.
He looked at me, but pointed at Dro. “Only demons can read minds and speak false truths!”
I gave him a blistering look. “My sister doesn’t lie.”
He grimaced. “Then you consort with the devil’s ilk,” he snarled.
“Stop jumping to conclusions,” I snapped. “She’s in a church. You used the holy water. She ate the Eucharist. You asked her if she was possessed. She told you she was different. So answer her question.”
“I did,” Father Colin spat, glaring at her again. “She is the spawn of the devil.”
“What if she were a prophet?” I asked. “Did you ever consider that possibility?”
He looked at me like I’d slapped him. If he kept his attitude up, I just might.
“A prophet of the Lord would not resort to vile, wretched lies to prove they were in God’s service,” he said as if everyone knew that. Maybe he was right, but Dro had tried to get him to listen to her. Revealing his secrets was the best way she could do that.
“I’m sorry. I just want to know what I am,” she whispered from behind me.
She sounded so small that I actually turned to look at her. Dro’s blue eyes stared down at nothing, worry and nerves creasing her forehead and making her seem older. My heart ached to see her so scared. I was about to go over and comfort her, but the priest opened his mouth again.
“I do not suffer demons in my church,” Father Colin said. “If she was possessed, I could help her. But she shows none of the typical symptoms. Whatever she is, it is unnatural, and she does not belong in a house of God.”
I tightened my grip on the hatchet to reign in my anger. “Fine by me,” I growled. “Come on, Dro. Let’s get out of here.”
I waited until she walked past me before following her. The priest turned in front of me, giving me a sharp look.
“If either of you breathe a word of what she said–”
I put my hands on my hips and let his eyes drift down so he could see the knives and the hatchet I was carrying.
“You’ll what?” I challenged.
Father Colin backed off. Our stay in Amarillo was going to be shorter than I thought. I shouldered past the priest, who moved back farther than was necessary. He was an asshole, but I wasn’t going to hurt him. I didn’t need to. Let him stand behind his pulpit and jump at shadows. I didn’t care.
Dro was waiting for me on the steps outside of the church. She sighed and wrapped her arms around herself. Any happiness and peace she might have felt at breakfast was gone. I debated going back in the church and smacking Father Colin, but instead I stood next to my sister and tilted my head to look at her.
“You okay, Dro?”
She nodded, clearly lying to me. “I just thought he’d want to help us.”
“Maybe he wanted you out of there so he could work on an alibi in case you go to the cops,” I said.
“I still plan on doing that anonymously,” she said. “He shouldn’t have gotten away with some of the things he’s done. Elizabeth was so scared, she probably never told anyone what he did to her.”
Elizabeth, the name of the daughter the priest had traumatized. We had never met her, probably would never meet her, but I couldn’t help but think about the last Elizabeth Dro and I had known when we were kids...
If Dro was too shy for her own good, Elizabeth was too chatty for her own good.
Mom had just left for work and Dad was on his way home, but for about an hour it would be just Dro and me. She was five and I was nine, and we decided to play outside for a little bit. We weren’t supposed to because we didn’t live in a nice neighborhood, but the sun was shining and we didn’t have school that day. I was playing with an old soccer ball while Dro was playing with some dolls Mom had given her from the Salvation Army.
Then, Elizabeth showed up.
There wasn’t anything wrong with her, except that she was super annoying. She was my age, and she never stopped talking. Some days I wanted to scream at her to shut up. Other days I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and say, “I’m not listening, I’m not listening!”
I refused to turn into Elizabeth’s life-size Barbie doll, never wanting to wear dresses or do weird things with my hair, so Elizabeth went after Dro.
“Hi Constance!” Elizabeth said, her voice irritatingly chipper. “Why are you playing the boy sport again? Is this your sister? Are you Andromeda? Why do they call you Andromeda?”
I groaned. Hurricane Elizabeth had touched down.
Dro gripped her doll tightly and looked at me nervously. She was shy around new people and watched how I talked to them. If I was nice to them, she knew they were okay to talk to. If I was mean to them, she knew to stay away. Elizabeth was like an alien to her. She wasn’t bad, just crazy.
“Hi, Elizabeth,” I said in a tired voice, kicking the soccer ball on my way over to where Dro was sitting on the grass. Elizabeth wasn’t going to hurt my sister, but Dro would relax the closer I was to her.
“Does she talk? You can talk, right?”
I sat on the grass next to my little sister. “Yeah, she does. You’re asking too many questions, Elizabeth. Calm down.”
“But she looks so weird,” Elizabeth said, plopping down on the grass in front of Dro and placing her elbows on her knees so her hands could hold her chin up. Dro started looking at Elizabeth curiously, but the big eyed-ditz wasn’t done asking her million questions yet.
“Why is your hair white? Are you an albino or something? Shouldn’t you have red eyes? Do you get sunburned really badly?”
Elizabeth just went on and on and on. I wondered when she was going to run out of breath.
“Can I ask you a question?” Dro said suddenly.
Elizabeth finally stopped talking. She gaped like a fish, then smiled so hard I thought her face was going to crack in half.
“You do talk!” Elizabeth started off again. “Ask me, ask me, ask me!”
Dro looked at me like she wanted my permission. I shrugged. I didn’t know where she was going with this, and I wasn’t the boss of her. Dro shifted nervously, then looked at Elizabeth.
“How come you stole Jenny’s doll when you broke yours?”
Elizabeth paled and started gaping again. I stared at my little sister.
“How– Who told you about that?!” Elizabeth shrieked.
Who indeed, seeing as Jenny lived two blocks away and had never met Dro.
“Nobody,” Dro confessed. “I just know it.”
Elizabeth shot to her feet, pointing an accusing finger at my little sister. “You’re a liar! A rotten little liar! You’ll be in big trouble if you tell anybody!”
I pushed to my feet and quickly stood in front of Dro. My fists were balled at my sides. Elizabeth stopped shouting. I was known around the block for being a tough kid. Boys bigger than me had tried to bully me, and I had sent them home in tears.
“Go home, Elizabeth,” I said coldly. “Leave us alone.”
She hesitated, wanting to argue and get her way. I wouldn’t budge. Elizabeth pouted, then spun on her heel and stomped off. As soon as she passed a couple houses, I turned and sat on the lawn across from Dro. My little sister was plucking the dress of her doll, trying to focus on something other than Elizabeth’s words.
Dro had always been a little weird. But I’d never expected this.
“You okay, Dro?” I asked.
She nodded, but didn’t look at me and said nothing.
“How did you know about the stolen doll?” I asked after a moment.
She sighed. “I don’t know. I saw that Elizabeth had a bad secret, and then I just knew what it was.” Dro looked at me, big blue eyes filled with sadness. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
I hesitated. Dro was my sister. She knew that I loved her and would do anything for her. But she’d known something nobody but Elizabeth could have known, and it made me nervous.
It also made me wonder more about where Dro had really come from...
“I just wanted a little help,” Dro sighed. “I mean, he may have done some bad things, but he was still a priest. He’s supposed to want to help people.”
I didn’t bother telling Dro that a profession doesn’t necessarily define a person. She wasn’t stupid. She just didn’t know what else to do. She didn’t know what she was, there was no one we could trust but ourselves, and we weren’t exactly on the most popular lists.
She lifted her head, glancing up. “Storm’s coming,” she said.
I looked at the sky. Dark clouds were building quickly. I frowned. The monsters could only come out in darkness and while they hated the sunlight, I didn’t want to take the chance that they would hunt us in a storm. I didn’t like that we had to stay in Amarillo, but now we didn’t have a choice. We were low on supplies, needed food, and I had to find a new car. Or at least new license plates.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get back to the car. We’ll try somewhere else. Maybe we can find a demonologist.”
Dro looked up at me, hopeful and confused. “Really?”
“Yeah. They’re supposed to be nuts about this kind of stuff.”
Dro smiled thinly at me. I smiled back at her, but my heart wasn’t fully in it. I had more doubts than assurances that we would find out what Dro was. But trying again would make her feel better, and that was the best I could do.
Finding a demonologist wasn’t the challenge. The challenge was finding one whose shop didn’t look like a cross between an apothecary and a circus tent.
Signs boasting “real” fortunetellers and “Spirit-Searching-Saturdays” were posted on rundown shops on streets hidden away from public view. Dro and I had stopped at a phone booth and used the address book to look for all the demonologists in Amarillo. We stopped in every single shop, and I came to a solid conclusion.
They were all con artists who didn’t know a thing about demons.
Granted, I didn’t know much about them either. But I did know that when someone avoids answering questions and tries to sell a five hundred dollar demon hunting kit complete with anti-demonic possession pills, the nicest thing to do is walk out of their shop and never come back. Dro forced me to be polite, but with each offer and attempted up-sell, all my faked politeness was fading away.
By the sixth shop, I was out of patience. I was about ready to tell the owner that I had been fighting monsters since I was fourteen years old, that I carried a small arsenal with me, and that I had seen and killed things that would make him piss his pants.
Dro could sense the hostility pulsing off me as I debated slapping the anti-possession pills out of the shopkeeper’s hand. She touched my arm and smiled at the shopkeeper. His eyes sparkled with wonder.
“Thank you for your time, but I don’t think this is what we need.”
She smiled at him again then pulled me toward the exit. I glanced over my shoulder at the shopkeeper to make sure he wasn’t doing anything suspicious, then walked with my sister down the street. I reached under my jacket and pulled up the hood of my sweater. The quick moving storm clouds had darkened the street, people rushing along to get inside from the rain, but I was using the hood to keep my face hidden. There was no way to hide Dro. She didn’t look like anyone else in the world.
Dro could sense other people staring at her through the shops or car windows. Even the people jogging past with papers or umbrellas over their heads gave her a second look. I glared at as many of them as I could see. Dro hated it when people stared at her.
I walked close to her, blocking her from as many eyes as possible. I wasn’t a fan of the unwanted attention either, but there was nothing I could do about it. So I distracted Dro by asking how many were on the list. She picked the crumpled piece of paper out of her coat pocket and looked at it.
“Just one. It should be up here.”
I took the piece of paper from her and read it. Garcia Preternatural Associates. A father and son who promised extensive knowledge and incredible results. Which I would believe when I saw. She shoved the paper back in her pocket while lifted my head when the rain started falling harder.
“Okay, they’re our last stop. I’m not liking the weather.”
Dro smiled at me. “Usually you’re jumping for the chance to shower.”
I rolled my eyes. “Usually I’m not freezing. Come on. If we move fast enough, we might be able to make it out of the storm.”
We didn’t make it out of the storm. In fact, the rain got worse the closer we got to the home-run business. The house was a two-story bungalow with white siding and a wooden porch. A plastic sign that read Garcia Preternatural Associates: Family Owned and Operated since 1997 was staked into the front lawn. The windows were curtained, golden light glowing from behind them and letting us know that someone was home.
The sight of it reminded me of the house Dro and I lived in as children. It had been so long that I’d nearly forgotten what comfort looked like.
A memory was pushing its way up into my head, but I stopped it before it could make me depressed. We had to get inside, out of the rain and away from the street where we could be recognized. By the time we made it up to the porch, we were soaked to the bone. Dro clutched her drenched jacket around her body, though it was doing nothing to keep her warm. The joints in my hand were stiff from the cold. I yanked open the screen door then gripped the doorknob. I twisted it to find it was unlocked, so I pushed it open.
I shoved my way into the house, the screen door slamming behind Dro. She was shaking in her jacket while I got a better look at the front hallway.
Everything smelled like sage. The walls were painted an off-white color, making the hall seem wider than it was. A couple tables with tissue boxes and decorative vases were on my right under a large silver cross on the wall. At the farthest end of the hall was a closed door. The staircase was on my right. On my left was the entrance to the living room. I started to walk toward it when someone entered the hallway and nearly ran into me.
He stopped while I stepped back, my arm wrapping around Dro and pushing her behind me. This new person looked about as harmful as a marshmallow, but pretty faces lied just as easily as ugly ones.
This kid was definitely pretty. A little thin maybe, but his Hispanic face was smooth and unmarked. If it weren’t for the dark stubble on his face, he would have looked like a very tall ten year old boy. He had a mop of curly black hair and gentle brown eyes. He smiled a nice, friendly smile.
I didn’t trust him.
“Uh, you ladies look a little lost,” he said. “And like you need some towels.”
When my defensive expression didn’t change, he looked over my shoulder at Dro. His smile faded, and I could practically see his heart skipping a beat.
I didn’t have a problem with men looking at my sister, or women for that matter. Human beings are naturally attracted to beauty, and there wasn’t a woman alive who was more beautiful than Dro. Things got messy when men lusted too heavily after her, or women tried to beat her on sight out of jealousy. That was when I got involved, and they paid a serious price.
But I didn’t get that sense from this kid. At least not yet. I could feel Dro moving behind me, her nerves raw and evident.
“Please,” she said. “We need a place to stay until the rain stops.”
She hadn’t added that our entrance here wasn’t random. One thing at a time, I suppose.
“We’ll clean up the floor,” she added. “We didn’t mean to barge in here, but the storm was bad and... And we didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
He kept staring at her. I wondered if he recognized her from the Wanted lists, where she was listed as my accomplice, but doubted it. If he had, then he would have had to recognize me. Instead, he didn’t even notice that I was the wall between him and Dro. He was too amazed by her.
“No worries,” he smirked. “I’ll get you some towels. I might be able to find some spare clothes for you to borrow so the ones you’re wearing can dry out.”
Dro smiled. “That would be great, thank you.”
“Not a problem. I’ll be right back.”
“Wait a second,” I said, before he could take off. “We’re coming with you.”
He frowned at me. “Look, my dad made me clean the whole house yesterday. I’d really don’t want to do it again.”
“Tough. We’re going with you.” No way I was letting him take off alone to call the cops on us.
The kid looked past me to Dro.
“She has serious trust issues,” Dro explained. “But I promise we won’t make any trouble.”
He glanced at me with uncertainty, but agreed. “Okay, fine. This way.”
I let Dro go in front of me, glancing in the living room as the kid walked us toward the end of the hall. He stopped at the far door and pulled it open. My hand slipped to my hatchet, my body tensing.
The kid flicked on the lights to the bathroom and rummaged around the linen cabinet for a pair of towels. He turned and handed them to me. I pulled them from his hands a little too aggressively, handing one to Dro before wiping down my face with the other. I shook out my hair, but kept my jacket on. There was no need to show the kid how many weapons I was carrying. I was going to have to empty my backpack at some point and make sure my supplies dried out. It sucked that we were going to have to throw out the leftovers from this morning.
“Do you guys want something hot to drink?” the kid asked.
We looked up at him. “Would it be too much to ask?” Dro asked hesitantly.
He waved his hand. “Nah, not at all.” He squinted at Dro, then pointed his finger at her. “Let me guess. Hot chocolate with marshmallows and cinnamon.”
She blinked, grinning. “Good guess, especially the cinnamon part.”
I looked at the kid suspiciously. It wasn’t hard to guess that Dro liked hot chocolate, even narrowing it down with the marshmallows. But the cinnamon... That made me wary.
He turned his eyes to me. “And you probably want black coffee, maybe with some kind of alcohol in it.” He held out his hands innocently. “Which I’m fresh out of, unfortunately. Dad and I aren’t heavy drinkers.”
He grinned his goofy grin again, but I was becoming more apprehensive about him. He must have noticed, because his smile faded again. He cleared his throat and edged his way past me to the kitchen. I watched his back for a moment before following him.
“Anything I should know about him?” I muttered to my sister for supernatural insight.
She shook her head. “He seems okay, but there’s something weird about him.”
“I can’t explain it, but he has something extra in his mind. Maybe it’s another sense,” she looked at him from the doorway of the kitchen. “He’s different. Special.” She turned her head up to me again. “But I can’t read anything on him to believe that he’ll hurt us. He’s a good guy.”
That remained to be seen, but I trusted Dro’s instincts enough to give his kid a chance. Having her explain it to anyone, even me, had never really gone well...
Elizabeth’s parents had called our Dad about five minutes after he got home. They said Elizabeth was crying and hysterical about what had happened with Dro’s random knowledge and my mean attitude. After calming them down and hanging up the phone, he walked into the living room where we were sitting on the couch, waiting to get scolded. Dro sat hunched over with her tiny pale hands in her lap, looking down guiltily. I sat next to her with my arms crossed over my chest, looking serious and feeling bored.
Dad put his hands on his hips. He looked exhausted, his overalls and golden skin still dirty from working at the construction site. He hadn’t even had time to sit down and eat dinner before problems started with his kids.
“Okay,” he sighed. “Who wants to explain what happened?” He looked at me like I was the one to blame.
Usually I was, but not this time.
“Elizabeth is just being a big baby,” I complained. “We didn’t do anything.”
“You said she stole something,” Dad pointed out. “That isn’t a small thing to accuse someone of.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, Constance. Tell the truth.”
I pouted. I wasn’t going to take the fall for this.
Until Dro decided that she would.
“It’s my fault,” she said quietly from beside me. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I didn’t mean to look, but...”
Dro shifted back onto the couch and pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and looking smaller than even a five year old should.
“It was an accident,” she whispered.
Dad looked at her strangely, glancing at me for answers. I said nothing. I might have seen what happened, but that didn’t mean I understood it. I still didn’t know if I should believe Dro or not.
“What was an accident? Elizabeth’s mother told me you said Elizabeth stole a doll from that girl Jenny, but how do you know it belonged to Jenny?”
Dro hugged her knees tighter to her chest, biting her lip and holding back tears. Dad walked over to the couch and sat down beside his adopted daughter. He put his arm over her tiny shoulders.
“I’m not mad at you, Andromeda. I know Elizabeth is a drama queen, and I know that neither of you took that doll. But I don’t know how you knew about it in the first place. I can’t fix this unless you tell me the truth.”
Dro shivered and Dad hugged her closely. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I’ll believe whatever you tell me.”
My sister looked at him, blinking her icy blue eyes. “I saw it.”
“You saw Elizabeth take the doll from Jenny?”
She shook her head. “Not in person. I saw it in my head.”
Dad went still. “What do you mean?”
She shivered again, like she was about to cry. Dad kept his arm around her, but his dark brown eyes were uncertain. Usually I was the one he had to be wary of. Dro was a saint.
“It was like a dream. I looked at Elizabeth and I saw these pictures in my head. I saw her taking the doll from Jenny’s house last week and putting it in her backpack when she wasn’t looking. I just looked at her and knew.”
Dad was still motionless, his hand starting to leave Dro’s shoulder. Almost as soon as it was gone, Dro broke down and started to cry. I put my arm over her back and hugged her to me.
“I’m a freak,” she cried into my shirt.
“No you’re not,” I told her.
“Then something’s wrong with me,” she sobbed. “Something’s bad in me.”
I pulled away from Dro to look into her eyes. Tears streaked her pale cheeks.
“Nothing’s wrong with you, little sister. And you’re definitely not bad.”
Dro looked at me, desperate for an explanation. But I didn’t have one, and I wouldn’t lie to her. Dro started crying again. Dad took her from my arms and lifted her onto his lap. She twisted and wrapped her arms around him, clinging tightly. He patted the snow-white hair on her back.
“It’s okay, Andromeda. You must have heard a rumor or had a dream or something. Your sister is right. Nothing’s wrong with you.”
But as Dad looked at me, I could see the hesitation in his dark eyes, mirrors of my own. He didn’t believe what he’d said anymore than I did...
I snapped out of the memory, having forgotten that I was standing in the doorway of a stranger’s kitchen, staring into space. My sister looked at me warily.
“Are you coming?” she asked.
“Yeah. Sorry. Got lost in thought.”
Dro understood when I didn’t elaborate. I didn’t have warm and cuddly thoughts.
We sat down at the kitchen island. The kid’s back was to us as he worked on our drinks, so he didn’t see me looking at the dark stove, the stainless steel fridge covered in notes and reminders, the trinkets and the spice rack on the counter next to the microwave. The kitchen smelled like cinnamon, further reminding me of the home I used to know.
I fought against memories when he turned and placed our drinks in front of us. I glanced in the mug, breathing in the steam and smell of coffee. It didn’t smell tainted, so I took a sip. The coffee was rich, black, and deliciously warm. I could feel the caffeine waking me up at almost the same second it hit my tongue. Dro’s hot chocolate smelled creamy and sweet, and was overloaded with marshmallows peppered with cinnamon, just the way she liked it. She took the mug in her hands to warm them up, looking at her smiling admirer.
“Thank you, Mister...” her voice trailed off, waiting for him to give his name.
“Whoa, don’t call me Mister. That makes me feel like I need business cards.” He grinned. “My name’s Max.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Max.”
Dro reached out and touched his hand, squeezing it gently.
Max looked at her hand and suddenly pulled back. My hand went to my hip. Dro looked confused. Max looked at his hand and then at Dro, like he didn’t know what he was seeing.
“What are you?” he asked her.
“I... I don’t understand,” she said quietly.
“You aren’t human,” Max said, speaking the dreaded words.
Dro looked at me. I had set my coffee mug down and was ready to move if he reacted in a way that I didn’t like.
“How would you know?” I asked.
“Because I’ve got some psychic talents,” he told me matter-of-factly.
I sniggered. “Right.”
“Believe it, Constance.”
I cut the sarcasm. He had my full attention, but his focus was entirely on Dro.
“I got a quick flash when you touched me,” he explained. “You have demons after you. You have for years. That’s why you really came here. To find answers.”
“Demons?” Dro could barely hide the shake in her voice. “Are you sure?”
“I do the occasional palm reading and my dad’s a demonologist. The supernatural is kind of our thing.” An idea must have popped into his head, because he started rifling through the pockets of his jeans. “I’ve got to call my dad.”
“I don’t think so,” I warned. “You still have some explaining to do.”
Max glared up at me. “What do you want me to say? I told you the truth, and you can’t say you don’t believe me. It’d make you a hypocrite, given what Andromeda can do.”
“Max, please,” Dro said. “If you know something about me, about these demons, you have to tell us. They’ve been after me since I was a child. I have a right to know why.”
This was the reason Dro negotiated with regular (well, mostly regular) people. She knew how to ask for what she wanted without pulling out a knife and threatening to cut off a body part. I tended to skip pretense and get down to business.
Max hesitated, then dropped his phone on the counter, wrapping his fingers around it.
“Okay, listen. I can sense certain things about people and things without touching them. That’s how I guessed about the cinnamon and alcohol and how I know your names. But when I touch someone, I can get a flash of who they are. Sometimes if I concentrate enough while touch something, I can even see a little bit of the future. Mostly quick images and feelings, but with you it was more powerful than anything I’d ever felt. It wasn’t just the fear you’ve been feeling, all the uncertainty, but you have more raw power in you than... Than anything. More power than any human could possibly have.”
“What does that mean?” I tried. “Do you know what she is?”
Max shook his head at me. “No. Dad might if she was a demon, but you don’t feel quite like that, Dro. You feel like something else.”
Dro hung her head, running her hands through her snow-white hair. Hearing she was being chased by demons was one thing. Hearing that she wasn’t human and something even a psychic had never encountered, was almost too much.
“Does your father know how to kill demons?” I asked Max.
Max started to shake his head, then stopped. “No. Yes. Kind of. If you want them expelled, he’s your guy, but one-on-one combat?” He shook his head for real this time. “My dad’s crazy, but he’s not insane.”
Damn it. “So he doesn’t know.”
“He knows the theories, but not how to practice them.”
Never mind. “Then you should call him. Tell him he can have a student.”
Max blinked. “You?”
Dro looked up at me. “Con, no, it’s too dangerous.”
I held her eyes. “Demons, Dro. Fiends of Hell. It’s the best explanation I’ve heard so far. Granted, Max and his father will give us more evidence when they have it–”
“We will?” Max asked.
“–but if that’s what we’re dealing with, then I want to know more about them. I need to know how to keep you safe.”
I didn’t add that anything they had on demons might lead us to finding out exactly what my little sister was. That it was just as important as understanding the creatures on our tail. Maybe even more so.
She didn’t like it, but she agreed with me. She didn’t have any other choice. I looked at Max.
“Now you can call your dad,” I said. “I could use an expert opinion.”
Max described his father, Manny, as a tough, smart man. I suppose he had to be, given that he was a professional demonologist and exorcist that expelled actual, real demons as compared to dealing with people who were having some sort of epileptic fit. Despite Max’s praise, I wasn’t expecting the man who walked into the kitchen.
He was probably younger than I guessed, but you couldn’t tell from the dark shadows under his eyes, or the tired slump of his weathered face. His hair was gunmetal grey with bits of white around his temples. I could see the resemblance between Max and Manny in the shape of their eyes, lips and nose. Manny was a big guy, and only some of the bulk around his middle was fat. The rest was muscle. He looked like a man who’d endured a hard life, carried the scars of it, but came out as a survivor. I hoped I would be as lucky if I ever reached his age, but I was realistic.
He saw the puddles and boot prints on the floor, and the two strange young women in his kitchen, and had been prepared to chew Max out. Then he looked at Dro, and forgot all about his son.
As soon as Max explained the situation, Manny whipped out a Bible, the rosary under the collar of his shirt, and tried to exorcise Dro.
“Dad, come on,” Max said. “If she was a demon, I would have done that already. But she’s part human.” He looked at her. “I think.”
Manny looked at us. Max had let us eat a hearty dinner of leftovers from his fridge, but had stopped when his father entered. I was sitting behind the island next to Dro, watching Manny very carefully. He gave me a quick look, but found Dro much more interesting. Everybody did.
“Ladies, this is my father, Manny Garcia. Dad, that’s Constance,” he pointed to me, then moving his finger to Dro, “and her adopted sister Andromeda.”
Manny raised his eyebrow. “Adopted? From where?”
“It’s a long story,” I told him. There was no need to elaborate.
“Dro’s asked for us to help find out what she is, and Constance wants to be a demon slayer.”
Suddenly, I was the more interesting one. “You want to kill demons?” Manny asked me.
I nodded once.
“Why on earth would you want to do that?”
I kept all emotion off my face. I didn’t let him see the deep, dangerous anger that built up when I thought about the monsters and the way they had destroyed everything we’d ever known. How they’d broken down all the walls of safety we’d built with our parents. How they’d forced me to do things that had stained my soul so darkly that no amount of redemption would save me from the pits of Hell.
I didn’t let him see that I was tired of being afraid of the monsters, the Blood Thorns, life on the run. Of Dro’s hidden nature.
“I have my reasons,” I said flatly. “And they aren’t your business.”
Max shrank back a little, and Manny regarded me as a threat. Which I was. Manny was probably getting ready to kick me out of his house, but Dro came to the rescue.
“What my sister means to say is that these demons, have been hunting us for years.” Her ice blue eyes were haunted. “There have been times where they’ve almost killed us. She needs to learn how to fight them as best as she can, and I need to understand what I am and why they’re after me.”
Dro looked at Manny. “I don’t know what we can offer you, but we need any help you can give. We can’t do this alone. Please.”
I hated hearing Dro beg. It pulled at my heart and made me feel like less of the protective, providing sister I was supposed to be. It wasn’t my fault, or hers. It was our lives. Still, I couldn’t help but look back at everything that had happened to us, and wondered what might have happened if I had done something differently. If I could have kept us both from starving and begging and fighting a little while longer.
There was a long silence after Dro’s request. I didn’t like it. It gave them too much time to think rationally and throw us out. It was going to happen. Nobody wanted to take in strays like us.
Or so I thought.
“Dad, they came here because no one else would help them,” Max explained. He looked at Dro and me. “Right? No one else believed you or took you seriously.”
I did nothing, but Dro nodded. Max looked at his father again.
“Besides, Dro can help with your research. She’s something the world hasn’t seen before. She can–”
“Whoa, hold on a second,” I spoke over him. “My sister is not going to be a Guinea pig.”
Max narrowed his eyes at me. “That isn’t what I was trying to suggest–”
“Then you shouldn’t have said it.”
Tension built in the room. Manny moved closer to his son, ready to defend him if I decided to get meaner.
“I’ll answer any questions you have, Manny,” said Dro.
I looked at her. “Dro...”
“They aren’t going to hurt us, Constance. I can feel it.”
Meaning she’d used her powers to take a peek into their minds. But she’d only seen what they were thinking now, at this single moment. When she wasn’t looking, anything could change. Smart people knew how to hide their true intentions, saving them for when they would do the most damage. I’d experienced it a thousand times over back in my cartel days. Everyone looked out for themselves first. The rest of us were left to choke on the dust they kicked in our faces.
I must have been scowling fiercely, because Manny’s shoulders tensed when he looked at me. Dro turned her sweetest smile on him.
“You’ll have to forgive my sister,” she said. “She’s very defensive. But I’ll be more than happy to work with you.” She paused. “I need to understand what I am.”
Manny regarded her with interest, becoming more and more intrigued by her. He didn’t look at her aggressively or without emotion. He just looked genuinely curious. I watched him carefully, waiting for that sinister gleam to come into his eyes, or the hint of fear that suggested he would call the cops. Nothing on his face changed. This must have been sincerity, something I wasn’t very familiar with. It made my fingers twitch, itching for the hilt of my hatchet to remind me that I could take control of the situation if I felt I needed to.
“All right. I’ll answer whatever questions you have. Tomorrow.”
Dro bit her lip. Max cleared his throat. “They don’t have a place to stay, Dad,” he said. “If they spend the night here, it’ll be easier for everybody. They can sleep in the basement. They won’t cause any trouble.” Max hesitated when he looked at me. “Well, Dro won’t. Constance... I’m not so sure.”
I grinned wickedly at him.
“She won’t do anything,” said Dro. “You have my word.”
My smile dropped. I didn’t like when Dro made promises for me. It meant that I had to keep them.
“All right,” Manny sighed, clearly as tired of this as we were. “You can stay one night so we can get some answers for each other.” His eyes found mine. “I will tell you everything I know about hunting demons, if that’s what you still want.”
I crossed my arms. “It is, as long as you keep your end of the bargain.”
Dro sighed heavily beside me.
Manny narrowed his eyes at me. “You don’t put a lot of stock into the human race, do you Constance?” he asked grumpily.
I shrugged. “I haven’t had the best experiences with them. Kind of hard to do when almost every single one has died or stabbed me in the back.”
Another silence followed as I fell into a dark place. I tried to picture the faces of the people who betrayed me in the past, but there were more than I could remember. And I was no better than any one of them.
“We won’t betray you,” Max said, sounding very honest.
He really did seem like a good kid, and I wanted to believe him. From the endearing look in Dro’s eyes, she wanted to believe him, too. But if I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me, Dro and I wouldn’t be living in poverty.
“Both of you should get some sleep,” said Manny, the weariness still heavy in his eyes. “We’ll start first thing in the morning.”
He made it sound less than promising, but at least I could tell myself we were making progress. Hopefully.